(Sort of) Ranking The Tragically Hip's Records / by Aaron Adair

After going through each of The Hip’s studio albums chronologically, I found that it’s impossible to rank each record from 1-13. The evolution of the band and the personality of each recording are so strong from record to record.

In this entry, I’ve condensed my previous five-part series and reordered an attempt at ranking.

I’ll post a reflection on the legacy of the band and a look at essential songs in the coming days.

Thanks for reading!

5 Dancing Gords Out Of 5: My Top 5

Fully Completely (1992)

This record is a masterpiece. It is the single greatest achievement in The Tragically Hip’s discography. Hands down. No argument. With all of the Canadiana infused into the lyrics, you just want to pour maple syrup over this album and devour every note.

Fully Completely is a rare blend of excellence in production, musicality, lyrics, and song selection. The Hip have always been a great rock band, but just listen to how hard and heavy they perform “Lionized” and “The Wherewithal.” The latter could be on a metal record, but the minimalist approach to the arrangements and production, along with Gord Downie’s voice, make it blend perfectly with the rest of the record. 

Gord Downie’s evolution as a lyricist and singer takes a huge step forward on this record. On their previous two albums, Downie sings in a prose-like fashion, as if he’s narrating individual short stories. But, the lyrics and phrasing on Fully Completely have space; there seems to be a turn toward the figurative compared to the stronger literal narrative that appears in his previous work. This album is also where Downie begins to approach songs like a poet and an actor (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, “Looking for a Place to Happen”). He sang with passion and emotion on previous recordings, but nothing like “LET ME OUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT!”.

Road Apples (1991)

As a sophomore record, there is a version of The Hip here that matured significantly as songwriters. Just listen to the arrangement of “Cordelia” versus the arrangement of any of the tracks on Up to Here. The melodies and stories are still strong, but the literal is becoming more figurative, and the straight ahead three or four chord rhythm guitar is dissipating in favour of harmony and complimentary riffs.

This album is where the band starts to cement their legacy as Canadian icons on tracks like “Three Pistols” and “Fiddler’s Green.”

We Are the Same (2009)

Through the chronological sequence of The Hip’s catalogue, this album is an amazing sonic anomaly. It gives the band Beatles, even Radiohead-like credence because it is a departure from anything else in their catalogue, and it works. 

This album seems to be the most perfect one to sit and strum along to since Road Apples. I can picture the boys in the band sitting around a campfire, trading songs off this album with Sarah Harmer and Jim Cuddy. Is it only me? Sorry, just my version of a little Canadian rock fantasy camp.

Did George Martin get a hold of the band and Bob Rock for this one? Accordion, string arrangements, pedal steel, flugelhorn, piano (etc.) on a Hip record? There are also layered and polished harmonies. Any Hip fan loves the way Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair let loose on background vocals on past records, but—again—the new approach on this record works. An early 90’s Hip enthusiast might spit at the thought of all of this, but:

•    This album cements the band’s legacy as excellent songwriters. There’s a beauty, honesty, diversity, and accessibility on this record that is admirable.
•    Most profoundly, Gord Downie has always been a great rock singer, but on this album he is a great singer, period. Gord doesn’t miss a note while ranging from quiet and honest, to full-bodied and powerful. His voice is crystal clear and forward in the mix, lyrics are less figurative, and each word is clearly emphasized. If you’re a singalong Hip fan, this is the most singalongable album since 1991. Did I just say “singalongable”??? Good.

The somewhat surprising balance between country and rock on this record just screams rural Saskatchewan (or Ontario for that matter). Given the guys-next-door in Anytown, Canada aura of this band, the uniqueness of this record makes sense. 

Up to Here (1989)

This record defines every recording that follows by establishing The Hip’s minimalistic sound and straight ahead brand of rock n roll. There are legendary singles, and B-sides that could have been singles for any other band at the time. 

I remember looking at the artwork for Up to Here when I was a kid; the picture made the band seem like the guys who live next door in any Canadian town, rehearsing in the basement on a Saturday night—quietly at first, but with more intensity after Hockey Night in Canada. The music matched that image. 

The legend of this record speaks for itself, so—

Phantom Power (1998)

Fully Completely, easily their greatest achievement, was full of Canadian shout-outs, but these references were minimal on their next two records. Phantom Power is the lyrical and musical equivalent of the entire band lining up at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge and giving any potential US record execs a full-bodied middle finger.

How many listeners outside of Canada would relate to a story for a girl from Thompson, Manitoba? Why would someone pinpoint a defining moment of a relationship as when his girl was “loosening [his] grip on Bobby Orr”? And where or what the heck is a “Bobcaygeon”, and why would anyone ever sing about it?

This record, as the title alludes to, has a kick to it. That full tilt in your face rock n roll production that was muted on the previous two records comes out in force on Phantom Power. Many of the songs are memorable, sing along anthems once again, and each seems to evoke a separate lasting image.

Transition Records With Powerhouse Singles

Day For Night (1994)

As many bands do, The Hip could have gone into the studio after the monumental success of Fully Completely, used the same producer, and followed a similar format to recapture its essence and success. But no. Day for Night is almost the complete opposite of that approach (perhaps what the title hints at?).

Compared to Fully Completely (which one can’t help but do), the production of this record is far more raw, the lyrics more dark. 

There are standout tracks that have stood the test of time:
•    “Grace, Too”: Come on! When the full band comes in and lets loose together on the riff, you can’t help but nod your head and rock out with them. Damn! That’s a heavy riff!
•    “Nautical Disaster”: I’m assuming this was the biggest hit from this record. What’s crazy about that after listening now? There’s no chorus in this song. Got a problem with that? Head back to “Greasy Jungle” and sing along. Oh! Also, along with “Grace, Too,” this song has the signature Hip driving outro. Love it.
•    “Inevitability of Death”: Speaking of singing along, if you’re still reading this, you’ve probably sung this song to yourself many times, trying to perfect Gord’s tongue twisting wordplay: “I thought you beat the death of inevitability to death just a little bit / I thought you beat the inevitability of death to death just a little bit.” What’s that? You haven’t done this? You mean, like me, you haven’t hit pause and tried to mimic… OK, Maybe it is just me.

Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)

Like Day for Night, this is another statement record that separates itself from its predecessor. Contrast the dark, raw production of “Fire in the Hole” on Day for Night, with the catchy, endearing acoustic guitar in the nostalgic anthem “Ahead by a Century.” 

There are epic Hip anthems on this record: “Giftshop” has everything that makes a Hip song a great Hip song; “Ahead by a Century” is in the running for the best Hip song of all time. The lyrics speak of nostalgia, and that feeling is even stronger over 20 years later.

In contrast to these hits, there are more songs that have Gord Downie experimenting with poetry and the persona that he brings to each song: “Coconut Cream”, “700 Ft. Ceiling”, “Butts Wigglin”.

Much respect for the band’s willingness to experiment with different approaches to songwriting and production.

World Container (2006)

There is a new sound for The Hip on this record; Bob Rock gave the overall sound more body than the Hip’s past recordings. He also seems to have influenced the arrangements of their songs and Gord Downie’s vocal delivery (“The Kids Don’t Get It” is playful and powerful—something that continues through the rest of the Hip’s catalogue). 

Many of the songs are undeniably catchy. “Yer Not the Ocean” is more in your face than the band had sounded since Phantom Power; “The Lonely End of the Rink” is everything I love about a Gord Downie lyric (the title alone does it for me); “Fly”, despite being a more cliché title for Downie, is positive and infectious; and the life affirming and upbeat “In View”, easily the band’s closest attempt at a pop song (my wife automatically starts bobbing her head when it comes on).

There is a slight dilemma: the back end of the record doesn’t match the intensity and quality of the first six tracks. Are the changes to the band’s formulas to blame? Quite possibly. Is “In View” just too damn catchy? Most definitely.

Modern Gem of this record: Listen to intently to the lyrics in “Fly” and think of Gord Downie. I hope he’s made it to Moonbeam.

The Unrankable New Records

Overall, there’s an honesty in these two records that hasn’t been as blatant in The Hip’s previous work. The reality of the ups and downs of life comes through in a profoundly beautiful way that cannot be compared with the rest of the band’s catalogue.

Now for Plan A (2012)

In a previous blog, I mentioned how I see a similarity to The Hip’s catalogue as that of Radiohead (This is a stretch, I know, but it’s there.) As a fan of Radiohead, I’ve needed to listen to most of their records from top-to-bottom a few times before “getting it”. This also applies to Now for Plan A.

There are a lot of really cool, and very passionate songs on this record (and multiple Sarah Harmer appearances! My Canadian rock n roll fantasy camp is one step closer!), but since it summarizes my relationship with this record so well, I’ll focus on one song: “We Want To Be It.”

“Drip, Drip, Drip.” The first time I heard this lyric repeated again and again, I didn’t know what to think. The amount of repetition and the phrasing of the words are unique for a Hip tune. As I put the context of the struggles that Gord Downie and his wife, Laura, must have gone through while she battled breast cancer, it all started to come together.

I now think of a husband sitting beside his wife’s hospital bed, desperate to help, but helpless in desperation. I picture this husband sitting in a stale hospital room wishing that time would fast forward so that all times could be better. Yet, the clock would be ticking as slowly as the drip from an IV/chemotherapy drip bag that would probably make the love of his life feel far worse before she feels any better.

The repetition now makes perfect sense. The pleading in Downie’s voice, reflected by the dynamic supplied by the band, is intense through this lens of reality. Downie is pouring his heart out for the woman he loves above all else. He’d trade places with her if he could, and he’s sharing this with his fans. This may be Gord’s most profound poem, song, and performance. 

This song summarizes my whole experience with this album. I’ve written of powerhouse singles in previous blogs; there are none here. However, there is poetry and music produced with passion, and Sarah Harmer’s harmonies are absolutely perfect.

Man Machine Poem (2016)

In the first break in the set at the Hip’s August 1st show in Calgary, a guy seated next to me asked what I thought of the show so far. I told him, “Nostalgia and reality are making this so awesome in so many ways.”

This is also true of this record.

I understand that Man Machine Poem was recorded before Gord Downie’s terminal diagnosis, but the reality of his illness cannot be avoided when listening to this record; there is a ton of emotion in the music and lyrics. Since the title of the album was borrowed from a song from Now for Plan A, the consistency from record to record makes sense. There’s no doubt that what Gord Downie and his family had gone through with his wife’s illness changed his perspective and his poetry. Still, one can’t help but interpret many of these songs as addressing Gord’s own illness. 

Highlights of this record:
•    The mechanistic voice at the intro of the album is the most un-Hip-like production of all, but suits the song and album title so well.
•    I have to admit that the first time I heard “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind,” I thought it was Arcade Fire. This track is one of my favourites of theirs in a long time. The playfulness in Gord’s delivery, especially in the final verse, just makes me smile. Any Hip fan would picture that playfulness coming alive on stage.
•    As I stated on Twitter a few days back, “What Blue” may be the most honest love song that Gord D’s ever penned. After digging into “We Want to Be It” on Now for Plan A, I will change my opinion slightly: “What Blue” is the most literal love song Gord Downie has ever penned: “I love you so much, it distorts my life / What drove and drives you drove and drives me too.”  Wow.
•    “In Sarnia”: There’s passion, longing, and honesty once again.
•    “Tired as F**k” is another one that makes me imagine Gord during his treatments, or helping his wife. 
•    The atmospheric track “Ocean Next”: “I’ll turn my music up/Listen don’t guess/At the centre of it, a little sadness/ Ocean next, the thousand pictures/ Better than sex, or salt’n’vinegar chips.”  Seriously, how many people can get away with a line like that, other than Gord? A Hip fan can’t help but smile.

Records with Personality

In Violet Light (2002)

This is a really solid record. 

The Hip sonically blend the laid back feel of Henhouse, the rawness of Day for Night, and even some of the straight-ahead rock of Fully Completely. I love how Rob Baker’s artwork creates the mood for the entire album, and how the band plays around with songwriting formulas that have worked so well for them in the past. Check out how they experiment with different feels, time signatures, and arrangements in “All Tore Up,” “Leave,” “A Beautiful Thing,” and “The Dark Canuck.”

Rather than continuing the Phantom PowerMusic @ Work feel, including opening the album with a power hit (“Poets”, “My Music at Work”), this record takes a little time to get going, but when it does, The Hip give three sing along tunes that reward their fans (“The Darkest One,” “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken,” “Silver Jet”). 

In Between Evolution (2004)

Even though there isn’t a typical powerhouse single that everyone will belt out at a concert, there’s a strong personality to this record that makes me feel good as a fan of this band. This record sounds like a band that got together, listened to some late 70’s punk, blended it with their own minimal style, hit record, and had fun. And, isn’t this what makes this band so legendary, so endearing? Doesn't this also equate The Hip with Pearl Jam? These two bands play straight-ahead rock music over an ever-evolving discography, with a loyal fan base, and a just-one-of-the-guys aura that pervades their careers. Think of this comparison when listening to this record.

“It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” is such a great tune.

Just Not My Fave

Music @ Work (2000)

Ok, so here it is: I don’t connect to this record as much as the rest of The Hip’s catalogue. Aside from the opening track single and the hook in “Putting Down,” not many of the songs are as memorable as you would find on past Hip records. Also, the lyrics aren’t as accessible on much of this record. 

Sometimes I rate my enjoyment of a band on how I imagine them live in concert. If this were The Hip’s only record, I would picture them being a great opening act on a stadium tour across Canada. I’d go to the show, sit through their opening set, buy the t-shirt, and probably wonder why I spent the 30 bucks a couple weeks later. Then, a couple of months would go by and they’d come through town, headlining a small club. I’d go. I’d sweat it out on the dance floor. I’d love it for that night. Once in a while, down the road, while I’m driving in my truck “My Music at Work” would pop up on shuffle and I’d go, “Who the heck is this?” My wife would look at my phone, tell me, and I’d say, “Oh yeah. They were good. Weren’t they?”

Nevertheless, as part of a complete discography and an evolution of a band, of this band in particular, I can appreciate the band grinding out these songs together and evolving their creative process.